Thursday, President Obama finally decided to say something about events in Ferguson, Missouri. Among his comments: “I’d like us all to take a step back” … “now is the time for all of us to reflect on what’s happened” … “There is never an excuse for violence against police” … “we’re all part of one American family. We are united in common values” … “now is the time for healing. Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.”
Yes, I am being selective with my choice of quotes. No, I don’t give a fuck about that. Michael Brown was murdered on Saturday. Ferguson has been under siege for several days … I can’t precisely say we’re seeing the implementation of a police state, when “police” seems inadequate to describe the militarization of so-called peace officers. Five days after the murder, our President pops up to ask us to “take a step back”. It’s a bit late for that, don’t ya think, Prez?
The Clash, “The Guns of Brixton”.
Tom Robinson Band, “Winter of ‘79”.
The Avengers, “The American in Me”.
Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”.
Public Enemy, “Welcome to the Terrordome”.
Body Count, “Cop Killer”.
The thing about the musical selections for this post is that they are un-centered, even unhinged. There may be a rational way to get to the same place, but for the moment of these tracks, rationality is irrelevant. The time comes when a different response is required. In “Guns of Brixton”, the singer says that yes, “the money feels good and your life you like it well”, but as with everyone, “surely your time will come”. Meanwhile, that time has already come for many, and decisions must be made. There is little time for reason when you’re looking down the barrel of a gun. “When the law break in, how you gonna go? Shot down on the pavement, or waiting on death row?”
“Winter of ‘79” describes a time in the future from when the song was written, from the perspective of someone further in the future looking back at the past. The narrator drips nostalgia at first, chastising the “kids who sit and whine”, telling them they “shoulda been there in back in ‘79”. But that fantasy soon gives way to a history lesson, a fake history where someone from the future tells us about 1979, but which is meant to speak to listeners in 1978, and which still rings true today:
That was the year Nan Harris died
And Charlie Jones committed suicide
The world we knew busted open wide
In the winter of '79 …
It was us poor bastards took the chop
When the tubes gone up and the buses stopped
The top folks still come out on top
The government never resigned
The Carib Club was petrol bombed
The National Front was getting awful strong
They done in Dave and Dagenham Ron
In the winter of '79
When all the gay geezers was put inside
And coloured kids was getting crucified
Finally, the singer returns to what amounts to a lesson to those whining kids: “A few of us fought and a few of us died in the winter of '79.”
“Winter of ‘79” came during the late-70s British punk era. “The American in Me” comes from the other side of the Atlantic. The singer here understands what is happening to us: “Ask not what you can do for your country, what's your country been doing to you?” But the country has already succeeded … “It's the American in me that makes me says it's an honor to die in a war that's just a politician’s lie.” To be an American is to already be brainwashed.
Those songs all come from white punks, 1978-80. Whatever privileges they think they had are gone. For African-Americans, the privileges never arrived. Nina Simone begins her classic “Mississippi Goddam” by informing us that she means “every word of it”, and as the song progresses, she stops at one point and remarks, “you thought I was kiddin’ … Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.” She goes from “I can't stand the pressure much longer, somebody say a prayer” to “I don't belong here, I don't belong there, I've even stopped believing in prayer”. She points her finger at those who encourage her to “go slow”, replying with anger, “This whole country is full of lies. You're all gonna die and die like flies. I don't trust you any more.”
Public Enemy takes the situation and makes it their own: “Black to the bone my home is your home, so welcome to the Terrordome”. “How to fight the power?,” they ask, knowing we “cannot run and hide, but it shouldn’t be suicide”. PE gives us their art, give us “something that cha never had”. It’s a “brain game” with a lesson: “Move as a team, never move alone”. But make it your own: “Welcome to the Terrordome”.
Body Count, or more accurately, Ice-T, goes all cartoon on us, as if cartoons are the only way to explain what reality is like. The chorus would be funny, if it wasn’t so true in its ludicrous way:
I'm a cop killer, better you than me
Cop killer, fuck police brutality!
Cop killer, I know your family's grieving
Cop killer, but tonight we get even!
I leave you with Robin Harris in House Party: